By Dr. Craig Fischer, Professor of Film and Cultural Studies at Appalachian State University

On Saturday, June 21, I hosted an ACLU of North Carolina-sponsored panel on “Comics Regulation and Comics Censorship” at Heroes Con, the Southeast’s longest running comicon. The well-attended discussion addressed instances when political and public outrage over the content of comic books clashed with the First Amendment.

The panel began with a discussion of a recent controversy in South Carolina, where legislators in the House of Representatives threatened to reduce state funding to the College of Charleston as a penalty for using Alison Bechdel’s lesbian-themed graphic novel Fun Home (2006) in a campus program. Present for the Fun Home discussion were Dr. Conseula Francis, a comics scholar and professor of English at the College of Charleston, and Christopher Brook, ACLU-NC Legal Director. Brook and Francis discussed the literary merits of Fun Home, the importance of protecting academic freedom, and the ways in which the “comic books are for kids” stereotype make adult graphic novels more susceptible to attack.

Following the Fun Home discussion, the panel shifted into a reconsideration of Dr. Fredric Wertham, the author of Seduction of the Innocent (1954), a polemic against what he considered the negative influence of comics on children. Wertham crusaded against comics in the 1940s and ‘50s, which led to the Comics Code Authority, a self-regulatory publishers’ organization that, according to many fans, neutered comics for decades and isolated the medium from a mass audience. The Heroes Con audience watched two videos, the first by Dr. Carol Tilley (University of Illinois), who in a recent article argued that “Wertham manipulated, overstated, compromised, and fabricated evidence--especially that evidence he attributed to personal clinical research with young people--for rhetorical gain.”  The second video featured Dr. Bart Beaty (University of Calgary), a defender of Wertham’s methods with patients and his observations about post-war comic books.

I concluded the panel with a discussion with Denis Kitchen, a legendary underground publisher and the founder of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, an organization “dedicated to protecting the First Amendment rights of the comics medium.” Kitchen talked about the CBLDF’s most famous case, the trial of Mike Diana, a cartoonist convicted of obscenity in 1994 and subsequently subject to warrantless searches during probation to ensure he wasn’t drawing anything offensive. Diana’s conviction still stands as legal precedent, a sobering reminder that the free speech protections afforded to comics art remain contested.

Craig Fischer is Professor of English at Appalachian State University. His work has appeared in The Comics Journal, the International Journal of Comic Art, and other publications. He was a judge for the 2010 Eisner Awards, and is currently co-writing a book on the cartoonist Eddie Campbell with scholar Charles Hatfield.